The Olympics brought the consecration of five players, either for completing their Career Golden Slam or for winning an Olympic medal that was evading them.
Redemption and rebirth
Many other players have had a very good Olympic tournament. I could talk about all of them, starting with Venus Williams, but I will stop at two men: Juan Martín del Potro and Andy Murray, and not out of favouritism. What they have achieved in London has been redemption for the latter, and rebirth for the former.
Juan Martín del Potro: Bronze Giant
We all know, by now, Juan Martín del Potro’s story: how the talented and powerful Tandil native made his way up the rankings almost as fast as his forehand, defeated Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer to win his first Grand Slam title at the age of 20, made the final of the World Tour Finals shortly after, and ended up missing for nearly a year due to a severe wrist injury before making the best comeback of 2011.
Throughout all last year, we saw him getting slowly but surely closer to his best level once more, particularly from the Davis Cup semi-finals onwards, and he continued rising at the beginning of the year.
The best proof we can have of his level rise is that, except for one match (in Brisbane’s quarter-finals), the only players he lost to since the beginning of the year are players who precede him in the world’s rankings: Roger Federer (six times), David Ferrer (twice), Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, and Tomas Berdych.
Steadily growing in confidence and power, improving some of the most lethargic aspects of his game (his net play and his movement, particularly), he has known one of his best Wimbledons this year, losing to an inspired David Ferrer in the round-of-16 before taking some well-deserved rest in preparation for the Olympics.
And what Olympics he has known! On a surface faster than it was during the tournament, the Argentine has been impressive for most of his matches, gaining confidence with each step and playing toe-to-toe with the best player of all times in a heart-breaking semi-final match.
On Sunday, well-recovered from his very difficult defeat, he took the court intent on taking the Bronze medal since he couldn’t log a place to try for the Gold.
How well he did it! Facing Novak Djokovic, who has appeared flat throughout most of the Games, but remained, as always, extremely dangerous, del Potro was focused, aggressive in his game, and playing, again, an excellent match to defeat the World no 2 in straight sets, 7-5 6-4.
After saluting his vanquished, but still gracious, opponent at the net, the Argentine fell to his knees and burst into tears, this time of joy, having accomplished what no other man in Argentina has done before him: winning a singles Olympic medal, the first (and so far only) medal won by his country in these Games.
After the match, Delpo spoke to Argentine journalist Miguel Simón (you can watch the full interview – in Spanish – here), and took time to talk about his sensations after the match, thanking the people for their support and encouragements, and happy his level hadn’t dropped from his intense semi-final:
“After playing four and a half hours against the best player in the world, at such a high level, the normal and logical thing would be to drop [the level] a bit, relax, feeling done in, but I believe the people helped me a lot, too. They moved me a lot with the encouragement they gave me, with the congratulations after a great match.And what makes me happier with what happed the other day and today is that Argentina will have a medal in these Games.”
”There were so many very good players and only three medals. At the beginning, inside, I knew I could do it, but that it would be very, very difficult.”
”Today, after three years, I make history again and this is something no one can take away from me. Just like the U.S. Open trophy, this will stay forever. It makes me happy that I give everything and that everyone recognises it, beyond the result, and I’m eternally grateful to all who follow tennis, to those who don’t follow me, to those who work with me, to my family, my friends, the girl who accompanies me, to everybody.”
What if, like his 2009 heartbreaking defeat to Federer in Roland Garros has then been, the heartbreaking loss he suffered on Friday was the catalyst of another great push from the Argentine, although hopefully not marred by injury, this time? He started well by defeating another top 4 player in as many matches to become a Bronze Giant.
Let’s see, now, what this medal will do for his confidence approaching the U.S. Open and the end of the season. For my part, I think we are finally beginning to see the rise of Juan Martín del Potro, part II.
He took his comeback one step at a time, and in these Olympics, he took a giant step forward. Looking forward to what comes next for the Tower of Tandil who, as I told a friend yesterday, has risen again and is now standing very tall.
Andy Murray: fully part of the top 4 now
This is a little in mockery for all those who said that Andy Murray was not part of the “Big Four” and that it was, instead, the “Big Three” or the “Big Three and a half”. His lack of Grand Slam titles has never kept me from considering Andy Murray part of the “Big Four” as he has been there almost without interruption since September 2008.
He has reached four Grand Slam finals, finally managed to win a set in one four weeks ago in Wimbeldon, has won eight Masters 1000 and has not stolen his spot among the four best players in the world.
Yesterday, he has shown why.
In fact, he has started to show it more and more since the beginning of the season, having made slight changes to his game, but most of all, to his mentality, since bringing Ivan Lendl on board, at the very end of December. If he still tends to rant when things don’t go his way, all the same, he is more focused in general and it has started showing more and more despite persistent lower back issues that he’s been having since last fall.
His Wimbledon was nothing short of incredible, as he’s shown a level of tennis such as we hadn’t seen him display since the middle of 2008 until the fall of 2009. Playing more aggressive tennis, trying to go for his shots, particularly when his back is against the wall, it has started paying off, to the point where he reached the Wimbledon final for the first time in his career.
At the Olympics, this change in mentality and “newfound” aggressiveness really paid off, especially after losing that first set against Marcos Baghdatis in the round-of-16 (the only set he’s lost throughout the Olympic tournament), which seems to have given him the little push he needed to go all the way.
He then went on to defeat Nicolás Almagro convincingly, then, in semi-finals, had the better of Novak Djokovic, a tight 7-5 7-5, in which he saved all four break points he conceded the World no 2.
Sunday, in the finals, Murray came off the blocks at full speed, and once he had the first break under his belt, he never looked back, not allowing Roger Federer into the match at all. In fact, he so didn’t look back that he took nine straight games off the World no 1 (and seven-time Wimbledon champion), including a 19-point game after breaking for the first time in the second set, in which he saved no less than six break points before holding.
The rest is now history. Andy Murray took the set, and then broke midway through the third to not only defeat Roger Federer, but to defeat him in straight sets, 6-2 6-1 6-4, and win his biggest title to date, an Olympic Gold medal.
Shortly after, he followed it with a mixed doubles silver medal, along with young Laura Robson, completing the best tournament of his career and leaving for Toronto as a double Olympic medallist.
This will likely bring him a huge amount of confidence throughout the last stretch of the season, particularly heading into the U.S. Open, looking for this Grand Slam title that still evades him. My guess is that it won’t be evading much longer, now.